When Facts Get in the Way

Three recent media fiascos reminded me of my love/hate relationship with London’s 'Daily Mail.'

Three recent media fiascos reminded me of my love/hate relationship with London’s Daily Mail

The tabloid suggested Melania Trump had been a high-priced “escort” and in a separate story that Trump’s choice for the Supreme Court had been a young fascist leader. 

Then it screwed up a story on global warming. 

More on those stories in a moment. 

I encountered the Daily Mail in 1960 when I first visited the U.K.

Two years later, it was part of my job at London’s UPI bureau to read first editions of all the national papers. I’d rewrite newsworthy items, credit the original paper and put our stories on the wire.

A typical rewrite might begin “LONDON, July 21 (UPI) - Plumbers in the London suburb of Camberwell are going about their tasks in pairs because of aggressively amorous housewives, the Daily Mail reported Tuesday.” 

It was the waning era of Press Lords but Daily Mail still was an important broadsheet; a respectable, visually attractive and politically conservative paper.

Today, it’s a Janus-like tabloid. Its popular dailymail.co.uk has enough solid reporting that I don’t ignore it. Catching disgraced New York politician Anthony Weiner sexting a minor girl is one example of its aggressive, Brit-style reporting. 

Yet there is a “don’t let facts get in the way” flaw in Daily Mail’s DNA that it shares with Wikipedia; in either case, I check it out. 

(With no apparent sense of irony, volunteer editors at the English Wikipedia recently voted to ban Daily Mail as a source in all but exceptional circumstances. The Guardian said Wikipedia editors “centred on the Daily Mail’s reputation for poor fact-checking, sensationalism and flat-out fabrication.”)

All of that is true. Consider Daily Mail’s salacious accusations and innuendo about Slovenia-born Melania Trump despite her denials and denials by others. 

Daily Mail’s online and print story last August suggested she was an “escort” or in the “sex business.” Headlines included, "Racy photos, and troubling questions about his wife's past that could derail Trump" and "Naked photoshoots, and troubling questions about visas that won't go away: The VERY racy past of Donald Trump's Slovenian wife.”

The accusations were drawn from published Slovenian sources and possibly American blogger Webster Griffin Tarpley. 

A couple weeks before Daily Mail’s story, tarpley.net said, “It is also widely known that Melania was not a working model but rather a high-end escort” and she was “reportedly obsessed by fear of salacious revelations by wealthy clients from her time as a high-end escort.” 

She sued Daily Mail and Tarpley in Maryland, where Tarpley is a state resident. 

Daily Mail retracted its story, saying it “regrets any such misrepresentation.” That didn’t end it. When the Maryland state judge tossed her suit because Daily Mail had no ties to the state, Melania re-filed her complaint in New York where MailOnline is based. 

She’s also expected to sue in London where Daily Mail is printed and Draconian libel laws favor her.

Saying he only published “unfounded rumors and innuendo” from the internet on tarpley.net, the American also retracted and the New York Times said he paid Melania a “substantial” payment to settle her claim.

More recently, Daily Mail said Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch was a teenage fascist. 

I asked snopes.com, a fact-checker/debunker that has been around longer than most other websites claiming to do the same tasks. 

Daily Mail got it wrong, Snopes says. The tabloid failed to check out a legitimate lead.  

Among Gorsuch’s activities, the Jesuit high school yearbook listed “Fascism Forever Club (Founder and President)” all four years. 

Daily Mail said, “The club was set up to rally against the ‘left-wing tendencies’ of his professors while attending a Jesuit all-boys preparatory high school near Washington, D.C. … He served as president until he graduated in 1985, according to his senior yearbook.”

Snopes said, “The Daily Mail's report appeared to have been based on nothing more than a few references to a ‘Fascism Forever Club’ that appeared among several other obviously humorous entries. … The article included no quotes from Gorsuch, or from any classmates, teachers, faculty, or representatives of Georgetown Preparatory School, verifying that such a club actually existed — nor did the article include any indication that its writer had even attempted to contact any of those parties, or undertaken any effort at all to confirm that the ‘Fascism Forever Club’ yearbook references were anything more than a high school in-joke.”

Snopes continued, “We made those inquiries to verify whether a ‘Fascism Forever’ club operated in or around Georgetown Preparatory School in 1985, and Georgetown director of communications Patrick Coyle told us that ‘no such club ever existed’ at the school.

The Jesuits’ America Magazine made similar inquiries and reported that the references to the ‘Fascism Forever’ club in the Georgetown yearbook were “just a joke.”

America added that ‘In the 1980s, students at the D.C.-area boarding school spent the minutes before student government meetings hashing out the political debates of the day. Mr. Gorsuch …  participated in the informal debates, where he was routinely teased, accused of being ‘a conservative fascist.’ ”

America Magazine also said, “He wrote that he founded and led the ‘Fascism Forever Club,’ though those with knowledge of the school back in the 1980s say there was no such club. The mention of it in the yearbook was a tongue-in-cheek attempt to poke fun at liberal peers who teased him about his fierce conservatism.

“It was ‘a total joke,’ Steve Ochs, a history teacher at Georgetown Prep, told America Magazine. He was student government advisor during Gorsuch’s junior and senior years.

“There was no club at a Jesuit school about young fascists. The students would create fictitious clubs; they would have fictitious activities. They were all inside jokes on their senior pages.”

America Magazine also said the yearbook’s mention of the club is not the only item on Gorsuch’s profile that is raising some eyebrows.

In his prep school and Columbia University yearbooks, Gorsuch quoted Henry Kissinger: “The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer.”

Finally, a few days ago, Daily Mail said it “can reveal a landmark paper exaggerated global warming.”

Wrong again. Sharing Trump’s contempt for science, Daily Mail misinterpreted consultant John J. Bates’ challenge to the presentation of updated information in a 2015 study. Last week, the New York Times reported that consultant Bates “appeared to distance himself from some of what he wrote in the blog post, and from the way his criticisms were portrayed” by the Daily Mail.

“The issue here is not an issue of tampering with data,” Bates said, “but rather really of timing of a release of a paper.”

It doesn’t end there. The GOP’s climate skeptic House Committee on Science, Space and Technology joined Daily Mail’s attack on the updated global warming numbers, basing its tweets on the “exclusive.” 

Curmudgeon Notes: 

Until the childish, petulant response of Trump Inc. to Nordstrom dropping Ivanka’s imported fashions, I was going to focus on Kellyanne Conway’s inability to distinguish verifiable facts from her alternative universe. 

She’s a spectacular liar or delusional and the news media can’t get enough of her. 

Just like Trump, she says stuff that is so wildly false that no one in her right mind would say it unless it’s true.  

More important, Conway perfectly deflects reporters from substantive doings in the White House, government departments and agencies. 

Ignore her? Are you nuts? She’s clickbait.

But the crass over-reaction to Nordstrom — from Oval Office to Conway to press secretary Sean Spicer — was so lacking in class that its was mesmerizing.

Trump tweeted, “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person — always pushing me to do the right thing. Terrible.” 

Everyone covered it. 

But it reminded me of a far classier reaction from a previous president’s response to criticism of his daughter.

Harry S. Truman didn’t like Washington Post critic Paul Hume’s review of Margaret Truman’s singing. Hume said “Miss Truman cannot sing very well” and “hast not improved” over the years. Truman wrote on his White House stationary:

“Mr. Hume:   

“I've just read your lousy review of Margaret's concert. I've come to the conclusion that you are an ‘eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.’

"It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you're off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work.

"Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!

"(Newspaper columnist Westbrook) Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you'll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.

“H.S.T.”

Now there was a man who knew how to use words. It was no mistake when James Whitmore called his one-man show about Truman “Give 'em Hell, Harry!”

• During an appearance on Fox News, Conway defended the president’s attack on Nordstrom, saying, “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff. I’m going to just give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.”  She told Fox & Friends, “It is just a wonderful line. I own some of it.” 

Federal rules say government employees cannot use their public office to endorse products. A bipartisan letter from the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee is asking the White House and Office of Government Ethics for disciplinary action. 

• Presidential advisor Conway is a perfect alter ego to her boss. News media have found repeated interviews when she got away with claiming that Iraqi terrorists staged a “massacre” in Bowling Green, Ky.

Over the weeks she made her bogus claims, she had to know it wasn’t true or she imagined there really was a massacre and the news media covered it up. The reason it wasn’t reported was it never happened. The scandal is that interviewers let it go unchallenged. 

• A measure of Conway’s lost credibility was when even London’s rightwing and anti-immigrant dailymail.co.uk called her out for lying. Headlines read, “She cited a fictitious terrorist massacre in the US to justify the new (immigration) policy” and “Conway then falsely claimed President Obama banned Iraqis for six months.” 

• Trump continues to disregard facts. He recently posted a bogus story on his official Facebook page: “Smart! 'Kuwait issues its own Trump-esque visa ban for five Muslim-majority countries,” citing the Jordanian news outlet AlBawaba.

As so often in the internet age, it didn’t take long before his phony claim was debunked.

Reuters, the nonpartisan news/financial service, said Kuwait’s foreign ministry "categorically denies these claims and affirms that these reported nationalities … have big communities in Kuwait and enjoy full rights.”

But, again, in the internet age, refutation trailed falsehood in Trump’s echo chambers. 

The Daily Beast said conspiracy-infatuated infowars.com repeated the story, citing Sputnik International, a Russian-government news agency. 

Sputnik later issued a correction saying its story was “untrue,” quoting a denial by Ghulam Dastagir, Pakistan’s ambassador in Kuwait. (Pakistan was listed as one of the five countries under the false visa ban).

Daily Beast said the alt-right’s favorite website, rightwing breitbart.com, whose CEO Steve Bannon is now a White House counselor, also reported the bogus ban.

• From London’s Guardian: “Donald Trump: a man so obnoxious that karma may see him reincarnated as himself.” 

• Every reporter knows a story that won’t die but has no life expectancy. In Cincinnati, it’s the streetcar.. But there’s an angle I haven’t seen explored by local reporters hungry for exclusives: How much could Cincinnati get from selling the streetcars and using the money to buy much-needed buses? 

• With all that is happening in this country and the wider world, where has U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot been? Hiding? Coma? Or busy apologizing for taking an image from an alt-right website without recognizing its anti-semitic symbols?

• On a happier note, former Cincinnatian Yael Splansky made international headlines when she led one of Canada’s “rings of peace” around local mosques. 

The interfaith support followed the assassination of worshipers in a Quebec mosque. 

Splansky is senior rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple, the oldest synagogue in Toronto. She is a fourth-generation Reform rabbi and was ordained by Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College. Her father, Donald, was rabbi of Temple Sholom in Amberley Village.

Huffington Post quoted her as telling the Canadian network CTV News, “No Canadian should be afraid to go to their house of worship to pray. It’s a terrifying scene. Imagine people of faith going to pray in peace, to pray for peace and to be at risk. Houses of worship are sacred and must be protected.”

HuffPost said more than 100 people joined Splansky’s group to form a circle of solidarity around the Imdadul Islamic Centre. They held hands and formed a human shield during the Friday afternoon communal prayers.

Similar actions unfolded at a handful of other mosques around the Toronto area and other parts of Canada.

“To see there are people out there — Jews, Christians, people of other faiths or no particular faith, who really care about the Muslim community — I think that says a lot and it’s really reassuring,” Ilyas Ally, assistant imam at Toronto’s Islamic Information and Dawah Centre, told CBC News.


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]

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